Jessica Miller chats with Katia about novel writing

Words by Jessica Miller

Published on November 20, 2012

This month is all about novels. Our editor Katia Pase chats with four writers about the process of putting together a manuscript. Jessica Miller is next.

Q1: Pitch your novel to us.

Pandora  is a children’s novel, bet described as a gothic reimagining of the story of Pandora’s box. The Pandora of the story’s title is a porcelain doll crafted by the toymaker, Weezy, to be her companion. Weezy is eccentric and possessive. She will not let Pandora outside their house, a small grey house with a wild green garden, far far away from any other houses. The workshop where Weezy crafts her lifelike toys is also forbidden to Pandora. When Pandora does venture, without Weezy’s knowledge, into the workshop she finds a mysterious box is hidden under the stairs. Inside the box is First Doll, Weezy’s first, failed attempt at making a companion. After Pandora releases her, First Doll slowly comes back to life. Pandora and First Doll soon become friends and the small grey house feels warmer and happier with three living there instead of two. But First Doll’s re-appearance disturbs the dark secrets of Weezy’s past and brings with it new mysteries: Why was First Doll locked away? And why does everything she touches start springing mysteriously into life?

Q2: Haruki Murakami says that when he’s writing a novel he gets up at 4am every morning, writes for 4 or five hours, then goes for a 10km run or a 1500m swim, or both. Did you have a routine you kept when writing your novel, and how did you juggle this with everyday ‘life’ commitments?

I wish I was disciplined enough to stick to a routine. I tried to do some writing every day, but that’s about the extent of it. One weird thing I did that became part of my routine when I did  sit down to write was that I would rewrite almost every scene after I had typed it up into my notebook and making changes as I did. Then transferring it from the notebook to the computer, making more small changes. And then doing that until I had a full draft….and then I did three more drafts like that. It was pretty painful.

Q3: How does your manuscript look compared to what you thought it would be when it was in the genesis stage?

I didn’t start writing with a very coherent idea of what the story would be, which is probably immediately evident to anyone who reads the finished ms. Basically, I had these two ideas floating around: one was that I wanted to write a story with insects in it, insect specimens actually – the ones that are pinned to cards and labeled – because I find them creepy and sad and interesting. The other idea was less of an idea and more of a factoid: in France in the 17th century porcelain dolls were called Pandoras, which makes sense because in Greek mythology Pandora was the first woman and she – like a doll – was moulded from clay. And bundled up with all these mythological connotations was the story of Pandora’s box, which I have always thought is just the coolest. And of course I did end up with a doll called Pandora and she opens a box and the insects make an appearance too, because Weezy is haunted by the ghost of her dead entomologist father.

I worked on Pandoraas part of my M. Phil in Creative Writing from UQ and my wonderful teachers and peers really helped me shape the story and the characters. And then I went through Allen & Unwin’s manuscript development program and got some excellent feedback from their editors, a lot of which was about thinking about the story’s audience, making it appropriate for children. I went back wrote out the climactic live burial scene after I talked with the people from Allen and Unwin. Retrospectively, that bit was not very child-friendly.

Q4: What other texts (books, movies, TV shows, music etc) did you consume during the process, and did any of it affect your writing?

Umm. I watched a lot of Bette Davis movies, so I guess if the novel is overwrought (yet still strangely awesome) in parts I could blame it on that. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is probably the only one that really directly influenced the story: the way the house in that movie is so spooky and claustrophobic and the way that you want to think Joan Crawford is good (like Pandora) and Bette Davis is bad (like First Doll) and the truth is – in both the film and I hope in my manuscript – that it’s a lot more complicated than that. Like in Baby Jane, I really tried to show in the story that, while First Doll has been cast as ‘bad’ and Pandora has been cast as ‘good’, in truth they are each capable of being both, in spite of the labels Weezy has placed on them. That goodness and badness thing, you can also find in a quote from Matthew, where he talks about good trees and bad trees but says that ultimately you should only pay attention to the fruits they bear: Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. I’d like to pretend I’m the kind of person that can just knock off quotes from the bible, but this is actually quoted by Lilian Gish at the start of The Night of the Hunter, another film I watched a couple of times, that explores this idea. Oh and I read almost everything by Rumer Godden – her books for children and for adults – who wrote a lot about dolls and The Mennyms by Sylvia Waugh which is, if anyone hasn’t read it, like a British kitchen sink drama acted out by rag dolls, except really warm and wonderful and the best children’s book ever and I don’t even know why I tried to write a children’s book about dolls because The Mennyms is the only one you will ever need.

Q5: What did you find trickiest about the process? What did you find most rewarding?

The trickiest part was all of it. The most rewarding part was everything. I think everyone should write at least one novel. It’s totally character building.

Jessica Miller dressed as Pandora for her grade two Heroes and Legends day. This was clearly a formative experience.